Green spring Kentucky is cool in April and smells like bluegrass and limestone. We travel there in April to show my western pleasure all-around horse, Polly. We go during spring break, and it always is a relief to leave Michigan with the small piles of gray muddy snow and 37 degree weather. You can't smell spring in Michigan the first week of April. There is no burst of green and dogwood and sun. Kentucky is therapeutic.
The competition is tough, and for many of us this show marks the first feedback from judges on the progress each team of horse and rider has made over the winter. It also marks what the rest of the show season may hold in store. Exhibitors analyze strategy and learning curves, showcase a horse's strength and downplay weakness, and evaluate a current training program at an early show like this one in Kentucky.
Standing on the rail watching a group of competitors is a good place for reflection. I believed that I was alone and was completely in my own head contemplating my performance up to that point in the day. Left dusty boot rested on the lowest fence rail, my arms were crossed on the top rail and I was deep in thought.
"I just can't seem to get in sync with my new horse."
Coming out of my own head, I turned to the right and saw the woman who spoke mirroring my pose just a foot away. She was 2" shorter than me with dark brown hair and eyes that matched. I recognized that she seemed frustrated and smiled at her sympathetically. I had seen her at shows since I showed novice, and we had talked before. She had always been friendly and kind in our conversations and has the kind of grace and ease that invites trust. I remembered that she had always shown hunt seat horses and preferred English to western, but she just bought a new horse. She was starting over.
"I know. It is so much more complicated than it looks. I've ridden it for years, and I learn something new everyday." I said.
"My horse is good. I just keep getting in his way."
There is a perception among the general population that riders "control" the horse they ride, but experienced riders know this sport is more about a partnership and communication than control. Horses are willing creatures that are cooperative and sensitive to leadership.
"I know. You have to feel sorry for those naturally talented horses because people always seem to want to 'fix' and change them. They are so much better when you stay out of their way."
We laughed together knowing we had the same problem. The reason we show is because we want people to see what a great animal we work with. We show because we like to bring a young horse out and prove her potential. We want people to see the raw talent and beauty we see when we are relaxed enough to stay out of the way. We want others to notice the invisible way our horse responds to our cues. When a performance horse is on, the spectators forget about the rider and they become almost invisible. Everything looks effortless. That is true horsemanship. It is also true leadership.
We stood and talked for more than an hour about how we wanted to be better. How we struggled to learn and improve. We talked about the drive to improve even 10% each ride.
The time came to go back into the arena and compete against my new confidante. We parted ways to get ourselves and our horses ready. We would be in the same class later that day competing against each other with a new understanding of the other's struggle.
Later that week after I got back home from Kentucky, I picked up my mail to see my new friend's face on the cover of a magazine I subscribe to. I read the story with interest. It seems my new friend is in the military. As I leaned against the rail dusty and contemplative talking to a friendly face, I had no idea that she wears a star on her shoulder and is a rear admiral in the Navy. It never occurred to us to talk about what we do for a living, we were deep in a conversation about the struggle of learning, communication, partnership, and leadership. I was definitely outranked.